Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Duped: “Situation—Grave”

The latest installment in Killer Covers’ “haven’t we seen this front someplace before?” series. Previous entries are here.

Spanish painter Joan Beltrán Bofill (1939-2009) isn’t exactly a household name, at least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Yet he left behind a handsome and wide-ranging wealth of canvases—plus a quantity of attention-grabbing paperback fronts that aren’t always linked to his portfolio. According to a Web site called Tutt’Art,
[He] was born in Barcelona. Joan attended the prestigious Casa Lonja, where several artists from the Catalan School, including Picasso, had also studied. It was here that Joan studied drawing, painting, composition, and theory of color. Joan also studied at the Sant Jordi Fine Arts School in Barcelona.

Considered by many to be the foremost Spanish contemporary Impressionist of today, Beltrán Bofill paintings evoke memories and feelings of previous centuries. In Bofill’s sensuous, free brushwork and lively colors, as well as his choice of subjects, one is reminded of Renoir, Monet, and Munch. But, although the influences of many artists are brought to mind, Bofill succeeds in creating a very distinctive style and beauty of his own. His work cascades with light, color, and rhythm of movement, which results in creating in the eye of the beholder a sense of beauty and tranquility. Dating back to 1972, Joan Beltrán Bofill has had one-man exhibitions in Palma, Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid, Monaco, Paris, New York, Chicago, Palm Beach, and Tokyo.
Tutt’Art offers various examples of his Impressionist efforts, and they’re well worth scrutinizing. However, it’s the artistic mastery Bofill brought to his work on book fronts for European publishers during the second half of the 20th century—usually under the pseudonym Noiquet (or Portada Noiquet)—that interests us here. In addition to creating jackets for Enid Blyton children’s stories and Zane Grey Westerns, Bofill fashioned striking covers for novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie, Earl Derr Biggers, and the astonishingly productive Carter Brown (aka Alan Geoffrey Yates).

Bofill/Noiquet was also responsible for the captivating paperback façade embedded at the top of this post, featuring a young brunette in her underwear, kneeling on what appears to be a bed. It comes from UK publisher Roberts & Vinter’s 1962 edition of Situation—Grave. As I understand it, that thriller was first released in 1949 as Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, but was retitled when another British house, Alexander Moring, brought out its own softcover edition in 1958. It was one in a plethora of popular works penned by Stephen Daniel Frances, once acclaimed—under the pseudonym Hank Janson—as “England’s best-selling mystery writer.”

I’ve mentioned Frances several times in this blog. That South London-born clerk turned journalist turned author concocted a succession of tough-guy tales—rich in American pulp-fiction vernacular, though Frances himself reportedly never visited the States—starring a Chicago-based newspaperman-cum-detective also named Hank Janson. (As legend has it, Frances selected the forename Hank because it rhymed with Yank.) The earliest of those quickly churned-out crime yarns was When Dames Get Tough, which debuted in 1946. New entries continued to appear until the 1970s, though by then their crafting had been handed over to lesser fictionists, and “the series had become near pornographic in content,” as Lee Server remarks in his Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers.

The books often carried memorable titles, among them Slay-Ride for Cutie (1949), Hotsy You’ll Be Chilled (1951), Blonde on the Spot (1949), Broads Don't Scare Easy (1951), Skirts Bring Me Sorrow (1952), Sugar and Vice (1958), and Hell’s Belles (1961). And a number of them boasted fairly revealing artwork by Reginald Heade, which—combined with the stories’ violence and sexual suggestiveness (there were frequent mentions of “clinging sheer stockings and ripped ‘knickers’”)—eventually landed the Janson books afoul of British obscenity laws, though by then Frances had decamped with his profits for a life of leisure in Spain. (He died of emphysema in 1989.)

During the middle of the last century, “Hank Janson’s sexy crime thrillers were the hottest thing around,” recalls Colin Dunne in a 2014 piece for the Daily Mail. “The American writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett had elevated the hard-boiled ’tec story into something like poetry, but Hank turned up the violence and the sex and took it back downmarket. Right down.” British crime writer John Harvey, creator of the Charlie Resnick series and a Hank Janson fan in his youth, writes in his introduction to the recent double release of two early novels, Amphetamines and Pearls & The Geranium Kiss, that “The first hard-boiled crime novels I read were written by an Englishman pretending to be American: Stephen Daniel Frances, using the pseudonym Hank Janson, which was also the name of his hero. With titles like Smart Girls Don’t Talk and Sweetheart, Here’s Your Grave, the Janson books, dolled up in suitably tantalizing covers, made their way, hand to hand, around the school playground, falling open at any passage that, to our young minds, seemed sexy and daring. This was a Catholic boys’ grammar school after all, and any reference to parts of the body below the waist, other than foot or knee, was thought to merit, if not excommunication, at least three Our Fathers and a dozen Hail Marys.”

Bofill/Noiquet contributed two cover illustrations that I know of to the Hank Janson line, both of them commissioned by Roberts & Vinter: one for the 1963 edition of Second String (shown above, on the right), and the other for Situation—Grave. I don’t find any full-length reviews of the latter novel online, but a Web page devoted to Janson first editions mentions that its plot is “set in Hollywood—the action switching from studio to marijuana den, and with intimations of the making of a snuff movie.” Classic lurid storytelling.

Apparently, I’m not the only person to have been impressed by Bofill/Noiquet’s Situation—Grave front, with its elegant brushstroke work in gouache. A version of his illustration later graced an issue of a Finnish, digest-style “cheapo paperback series called Max Strong,” named after a fictional Australian detective whose exploits—“excitement of a different kind”—were composed, in large part, by editor-author Frank Sydney Greenop (aka Robert Dudgeon) and designed to capture a readership on the scale of Carter Brown’s. In his write-up on this publication, Finnish blogger Juri Nummelin headlines it as having been distributed in 1954, though the wrapper date says 1965. He goes on to explain that the cover story, Murhat ovat epämiellyttäviä (translated as Murder’s So Unpleasant) was the work of “Frank Struan”—real name Graham Fisher—who was “born in 1920 … [and] used the Frank Struan pseudonym in a series of stories that were published in the legendary British magazine called Tit-Bits in the early ’50s.” As to the tale’s plot, Nummelin calls it “a mock-American hard-boiled crime novel with a private-eye hero called Johnny July.”
In this outing, Johnny July is hired to guard a wealthy business man, but he dies—in a closed room!—before July gets a chance to make out just from whom the man’s supposed to be guarded ... There are two beautiful women involved in the case, the young bride of the deceased and her sister who seems to be after the man’s inheritance. Or some such. … It's an one-hour entertainment, nothing more. There are notable gaps in the plot and Johnny July isn’t a very interesting character, but I didn’t really mind, as the stuff went on with some speed. There are many references to Chandler. The city of the story is Bay City, Chandler’s fictional city, and Johnny July is mugged and taken to a mental institute to be held there just like [Philip] Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely.
You’ll note I wrote that a “version” of Bofill/Noiquet’s art introduced Murder’s So Unpleasant. That’s because, if you look closely at the book front on the left, you’ll realize that the image has been flipped from the way it appeared on Situation—Grave, turning Noiquet’s signature at the bottom of the picture backwards. And the scantily clad brunette is now holding a gun, whereas that same hand—formerly her right, now her left—had previously been clutching her left bicep. I have no idea whether Bofill was commissioned to make this modification to his painting, but I’d guess it was executed by somebody else. It’s well done; however, 20th-century publishers of “cheapo paperback series” rarely coughed up the dough demanded by famous artists to alter their compositions for second use.

Joan Beltrán Bofill wasn’t as prolific a book-cover painter as some of his contemporaries (he probably reserved his energy for his Impressionist masterpieces). However, he created a number of excellent specimens of the breed. Below are eight more of my favorites. Click on the images for enlargements.

1 comment:

Johny Malone said...

Some of my Noiquet covers: